How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through 'charitable giving'

  • Jun 12, 2019
  • The Guardian

A two-foot-wide pipe connecting the Mobil oil company’s Idoho offshore platform to a terminal near Nigeria’s eastern border ruptured in January 1998, spewing crude oil directly into the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr David Page visited Nigeria after the spill and offered his views of its impact to the New York Times, which were published in special report dated 20 September that year. Page’s arrival on the scene was anticipated years earlier in Mobil’s plans, internal Mobil Foundation documents newly obtained by the Guardian reveal.

“Between Mother Nature and Mobil’s highly effective and targeted response, the shoreline was spared what could have been a very serious environmental event,” Page, described as a Bowdoin College professor and “an American oil spill expert”, told the New York Times.

“I’m not an attorney,’’ Page continued, “but it’s fair to say that because so little oil got ashore, I’d be very surprised if fishermen’s livelihoods were cut off.’’

Others found the spill far more significant, however. It proved to be one of the largest in Nigerian history – by the gallon, one-sixth the size of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. Roughly 1 million people lived in areas Human Rights Watch later listed as “the worst hit” by the spill. Crude reached as far as Lagos harbor, over 500 miles away.

Mobil collected oil-clogged nets from fishermen and burned them, offering in exchange sums locals said were a fraction of replacement costs. Legal battles, protests and unrest continued for two decades.

Five years before the spill, the Mobil Foundation, run by top Mobil executives, had named Page in its decision to continue funding Bowdoin College’s Marine Research Laboratory – writing that a proposed $10,000 grant for the lab could help “assure rapid response to any possible Mobil spill events”.

“Drs [Edward] Gilfillan and Page … are our most valuable marine pollution contacts outside the industry,” Mobil Foundation wrote in the documents, adding that the lab had already received $132,000 from Mobil from 1986 to 1993, and that the lab maintained “a healthy attitude toward the oil industry’s requirements for transportation and storage of petroleum on the world’s waters”.

The foundation had listed Nigeria as one of four areas worldwide where Page’s work on mangrove swamps could prove useful, especially when it came to “litigation concerning environmental damage”.

In an email response to the Guardian’s questions about Mobil Foundation funding for Bowdoin, Page said: “At no time was there an expectation of a quid pro quo – in any form. It was a philanthropic activity in an area of interest to Mobil.”

He said the grants went towards funding summer research student placements.

“In the case of the 1998 IDOHO spill, Mobil asked us to work with a group of Nigerian academic and non-academic professionals to share our experience and help them conduct a post-spill impact study that would meet international standards,” he wrote.

Nigeria was not the only place Mobil reaped benefits its tax-exempt foundation sought to claim from its charitable giving, according to previously undisclosed internal documents from the early 1990s.

The Mobil Foundation also sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, the documents show.

Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.

Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge EPA behind-the-scenes”.

The documents, which include research, engineering and environmental affairs grant recommendations for 1994, cover over 120 proposals worth about $1.2m – roughly 10% of the foundation’s total budget that year – and list more than 700 grants from prior years.

Dozens of the single-page grant recommendations include full paragraphs on the “benefits to Mobil” that Mobil executives predicted the company could cull from the foundation’s gifts.

Each recommendation offers an unprecedented window into Mobil’s internal reasoning.

One page lists $100,000 in grants from 1990-1993 for the HarvardSchool of Public Health’s Center for Risk Analysis. The center’s director, John Graham, “has been effective in … pointing out the safety risks associated with excessively stringent fuel economy standards”, Mobil Foundation wrote as it proposed more funding. Graham had previously published a 1992 report titled The Safety Risks of Proposed Fuel Economy Legislation which made no mention of Mobil’s funding for the Harvard-based center.